From the preceding exposition of Alcuin’s opinions respecting the theory and practical adaptation of the sciences then in use, it will be readily concluded, that in the schools about to be erected, theology and philosophy would form the chief subjects of education. What the church and state require of those who devote themselves to their service, depends upon the exigencies of the times and the nature of circumstances. The government of France with regard to its finances, its military constitution and its laws, was so simply organized, that there needed not a distinct profession for each branch of public business, nor was any other knowledge required than that which was essential to common life. A vigorous arm a courageous heart, and a sound understanding, fitted a man in those days for the management of the affairs of state; so that he who today presided in a court, of justice, appeared the next day at the head of an army, or, at another time, was seen in a foreign court charged by his sovereign with a diplomatic commission. It was requisite, that he should be acquainted with Latin, as all written negotiations were carried on in that language. The ecclesiastic, however, had to pursue another course of study, yet Latin formed also the groundwork of his learning; for none but a few distinguished men made such progress in Greek and Hebrew as to be able to read the sacred writings in their original tongues. Amid the strife of contending sects and contradictory opinions, the Christian religion had been gradually erected into a solid fabric of doctrines and ceremonies. The whole of western Christendom adhered at that time to the Catholic faith, which was beginning to separate from the Greek church, and to assume the characteristics of the Roman Catholic. The doctrines of the orthodox church were contained in the works of the fathers who had either philosophically expounded the Holy Scriptures, or had opposed the heresies of their times. It was necessary that the ecclesiastic should study these also; and in order rightly to understand them, he was obliged to make himself acquainted with the sciences which have been characterized in a preceding chapter. In the establishment of new schools, regard was naturally paid to these demands of church and state; but as ordinary minds aim at no higher objects than those proposed by the state; some institutions which may be denominated Universities, enlarged the course of instruction for the benefit of those who were ambitious of knowledge.

In the latter part of the ninth century, a monk of the monastery of St. Gallen, collected the anecdotes of Charlemagne, which were current at that time, but like similar records of the great men of modern times, they are for the most part either fictitious, or the truth is so disguised, that it cannot be recognized. They have, however, an historical value, so far as they show the opinion entertained, in the time of Charles Le Gros, of the founder of the Carolingian dynasty, fallen as its power then was. The worthy monk gives, in his peculiar facetious, blunt style, much information respecting the efforts made by Charles to promote civilization; and relates the following anecdote when speaking of the establishment of schools. Two Irishmen well skilled in all secular and ecclesiastical learning, came with some English merchants to the coast of Gaul, and offered wisdom for sale, “Does any man lack wisdom? Let him come and take it, for here it is to be sold”. The king no sooner heard of these adventurers, than he sent for them, and inquired whether they really had the article. They answered in the affirmative, and assured his majesty, that they were willing to dispose of it to every man, if the king would grant them a convenient dwelling, assign them pupils of promising abilities, and supply them with that without which human life cannot be sustained—food and clothing. Charles retained them in his palace for some time, and when the affairs of his kingdom called him into the field, he commanded one of them, named Clemens, to remain in Gaul, and placed under his tuition boys of all ranks from the highest to the lowest class. The other he sent into Italy to the monastery of St. Augustine at Pavia, in order to establish a school there. Encouraged by this favourable reception, proceeds the monk, Alcuin came to Gaul, where his endeavours were crowned with such success, “that the modern Gauls or Franks might have been compared with the ancient Romans or Greeks”.

This narrative confounds earlier with later events, and in the transition to Alcuin betrays evident marks of a tradition which is founded, indeed, upon fact; but to which additions have been made without much regard to their truth or falsehood. The Irishman, Clemens, appears to be identical with one of that name who was an eminent professor among the Franks in the middle of the eighth century; but who, by his heretical opinions, incurred the displeasure of St. Boniface, on whose accusation he was condemned by the popes. But tradition has embellished his history with those fanciful decorations which are observable in the narrations of the monk of St. Gallen, and, like everything else that regarded intellectual improvement, have a reference to Charlemagne. It appears, however, that previous to Alcuin’s arrival, no public school of importance, except the court-school existed on the Cisalpine territories; and even after his arrival, five years elapsed before any decided step was taken. It was necessary to promote to bishoprics and abbacies, men capable of seconding Charles’ designs, before he could attempt to execute them. The court-school, under Alcuin’s superintendence, furnished, as might be expected, some able scholars; others were attracted from foreign countries by the king’s liberality, or rescued from obscurity by his penetration, and removed from an inferior sphere of action to a position more worthy of their talents. He elevated St. Paulinus to the patriarchate of Aquileia; Leidrad obtained the archbishopric of Lyons, Theodulph, the bishopric of Orleans; Arno, Alcuin’s most intimate friends the archbishopric of Saltsburg; all men illustrious for the extent of their learning, and full of zeal for its diffusion. When Charles returned from Italy in the year 786, (whither he had marched to oppose the duke of Beneventum), he brought with him a number of Italians capable of instructing in singing, organ-playing, grammar, and cyphering. Having taken all these preparatory steps, the king caused circular letters to be sent to all the bishops and abbots in his kingdom, commanding the establishment of schools. In these letters, he says, that in the official reports that had been sent to him from the monasteries, he had perceived with much displeasure the imperfect and awkward manner in which thoughts in themselves correct were expressed; and could not, therefore, help doubting whether the meaning of the Holy Scriptures, and the doctrines of the Christian religion were properly understood. To call their attention to how much depended upon the right or wrong use of words, he reminds them of the passage in the Gospel where it is said : “By thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned”. In order, therefore, to remedy this evil so perilous to the soul, he commands that a school should be attached to every cathedral church, and every monastery, without, however, specifying more minutely what was to be taught. The kind of evil designed to be removed by this means, proves that originally the education of the clergy only was contemplated; ideas upon this point, however, soon became more enlarged, and, in pursuance of supplementary edicts, instruction was extended even to the lowest classes of the laity. The command is given in such positive terms, and obedience so forcibly inculcated by threats of the royal displeasure, that considering Charles’ severity against wilful disobedience, the vigilance of his government, which, by means of its emissaries, was acquainted with the condition of the most distant provinces, neglect was not likely to ensue. The chronicles of the monastery of Fontenelle afford an example of the manner in which the king’s mandate was executed even where there were no competent teachers. A man named Gervold, was, at that time, abbot of this monastery; to whom the king’s indignation at the ignorance of the clergy must have been so much the more formidable, as his own conscience was not quite clear in this matter. He hastened to obey the king’s command in the best manner he was able. He opened a school in his monastery, in which singing, if nothing else, was taught; for, adds the chronicler, “if he had not much skill in other sciences, he was a proficient in the art of singing, and was not deficient in sweetness or power of voice”. He soon after associated with himself the presbyter, Harduin, who had for some time lived as a hermit; but as an opportunity presented itself of employing his talents and acquirements for the benefit of others, he returned to the society of men, and gave instructions in writing and cyphering. This monastery of Fontenelle, may serve as a representation of all the other schools that were founded in consequence of the royal command, but did not attain to sufficient celebrity to be even incidentally mentioned in the writings of that period. Without entering into a detailed account of each separate school, a general description may suffice. They were divided into three classes : to the first belonged all wherein the seven liberal arts, and the theological sciences were taught, and which, although chiefly designed for the education of the clergy, were open nevertheless to all who were desirous of qualifying themselves for secular employments. The school belonging to the monastery of St. Martin at Tours, which Alcuin founded at a subsequent period, and raised to eminence by his personal superintendence, may be considered as a specimen of this class. In a letter to the king, Alcuin gives the following account of it :—"”I, your Flaccus, in accordance with your admonitions and wishes, endeavour to administer to some in the house of St, Martin, the honey of the Holy Scriptures; others I would fain intoxicate with the pure wine of ancient wisdom; others I begin to nourish with the fruits of grammatical subtleties; many I seek to enlighten by the order of the stars. But above all things, I strive to train them up to be useful to the holy church of God, and an ornament to your kingdom; that the unmerited mercy shown to me by Almighty God, and your liberal kindness, may not be altogether fruitless”.

This account states distinctly enough, that the object of the school at Tours was to give a liberal education to the officers of the church and state. All the schools of the first class had indeed the same object, but all had not the same means of attaining it as that at Tours, at the head of which was Alcuin himself seconded by the pupils who were best qualified to assist him. From what we can learn of other cathedral schools, it appears that the greatest part of them stood in the same relation to the school at Tours and the court-school, as with us a public school stands to the Universities. The title or character of university, or, in other words, of an institution where all the sciences of that period were taught, depended upon the personal qualifications of the director, and was not conferred on any particular place. The court-school naturally maintained this character the longest, because in that institution there were never wanting men of distinguished abilities, who preferred residing where their talents would be best appreciated and rewarded; with the rest, however, it was changed with the Principal, and was transferred at different times to different monasteries. At the sixth Parisian council held in the year 829, the assembled fathers presented a petition to the emperor, Louis the Pious, in which they most urgently but humbly besought his highness to establish by royal authority public schools in the three most convenient places in the empire, after the example of his father, and not to suffer the efforts made by Charlemagne for the increase of knowledge to fail from neglect. “This”, added they, “will conduce to the advantage and honour of the holy church of God, to the benefit of the state and to the everlasting glory of the emperor himself”. From this passage it appears, that in the reign of Charlemagne, there were places of tuition specifically denominated public schools, which fell into decay after his death; but the utility of which, to the church and state, was so generally acknowledged, that their re-establishment was desired. They must have been something different from the monastic schools, as they, so far from having ceased in the reign of Louis the Pious, were precisely at that time most flourishing, and in the most vigorous operation; an instance of which may be found in that of Fulda. These public schools were probably the superior establishments or universities, which were under the immediate direction of the state, and not subject to any bishop or abbot. The council urges the erection of three such schools, evidently with the design of establishing one in each of the three principal divisions of the French monarchy—France, Germany and Italy. Whether, however, among the schools founded by Charlemagne, three only were characterized as public schools is unknown to us, and equally so the places where they were situated.

In order to attain the object proposed by the schools of the first class, a library was indispensable; it consisted at its commencement of only a small collection of books, which, as we shall presently see, was augmented by copies of works deposited in English libraries, and also by presents from Italy and even from Constantinople. The alliance entered into by Charles’ father, Pepin, with the Byzantine court, had also influenced the literary efforts of that period, by affording an opportunity of acquiring the Greek language, with which Alcuin appears to have been but imperfectly acquainted. A native of Greece, the eunuch Eliseus, resided some time at the Frank court, for the purpose of teaching Greek to Charles’ daughter, Rotrudis, who was betrothed to the emperor Constantine VI. The king probably availed himself of his assistance in learning the little, which, according to Einhard’s account, he knew of that language. The discipline in these schools was severe, and the pupils were under constant superintendence, in order to restrain them from habits of idleness, from vain amusements, and frivolous occupations.

To the second class, belonged the seminaries for singing and church music; of which those established at Metz and Soissons were originally the only ones, and long continued to be the most renowned. Charles was greatly annoyed by the French mode of singing; for, besides, that their harsh guttural dialect was by no means adapted to melody, the people imagined the beauty of singing to consist in the loudness of the tone, and consequently endeavored to out-scream each other. The reproach of the Italians was not unjust, that the French roared like wild beasts. It was only necessary for Charlemagne to have once heard the Roman church music, to cause him to desire and attempt an improvement in that of his own subjects. The national vanity of the French rendered them unwilling to admit the superiority of the Roman singing, but Charles proved that it was far better, and commanded that it should be adopted. Pope Hadrian I who willingly seconded all the king’s efforts for the reformation of the church, presented him with his two best singers, Theodore and Benedict, one of whom Charles established at Metz and the other at Soissons. There, everyone who desired to teach singing in any of the other schools, or to become a chorister in a church, was now compelled to acquire the Roman method of singing; in consequence of which this art became thenceforth general on this side the Alps, and as perfect as the discordance of the French voices would permit. Instruction was also given at those institutions in organ-playing; but so long as organs could only be obtained from foreign countries, a few, and those probably the principal, churches could alone be provided with them. The first organ seen in France was sent in the year 757, as a present from the Byzantine emperor, Constantine V to king Pepin; and it was not till the year 826, that organs began to be built in France. At that time, a Venetian, named George, presented himself to Louis the Pious, and offered both to build organs, and to teach the art to others; an offer which the emperor accepted with pleasure, and ordered the artist to be provided with every requisite.




The schools in which the commonest education was given, composed the third class, and were designed for those who moved in the subordinate ranks of life. Intellectual cultivation was not to be confined merely to the clergy, or to those among the laity whose birth and wealth called them to fill eminent stations in society; but knowledge was to shed its beneficial influence upon the lowest classes. The decree made by Charles on this point, was published in the year 789, and enforces again and again upon the monasteries the duty of establishing schools, in which reading, writing, cyphering, and singing, should be taught. We see, in the instance of bishop Theodulph, of Orleans, how that command was obeyed; and there exists no reason to suppose, that it was not by degrees similarly attended to by the rest of the bishops. Theodulph caused a school to be opened in every village within his diocese, and expressly forbade the masters to accept from their pupils any other remuneration for the instruction afforded, than the voluntary presents which the parents might bestow, as a proof of their affection. This regulation was necessary, in order that the poor might not be deterred from attending the schools. Thus, was a more universal education secured to the lower orders, at the conclusion of the ninth century, than France can boast of in the nineteenth; and it is impossible to calculate what might have been the effect, had the same spirit and zeal that first called these schools into existence, protected them until they had taken sufficiently deep root to subsist without external support. For in that case, the mental superiority of one class of society would never have been so great, as to allow of their oppressing the minds of the other classes, and assuming a kind of guardianship over them. Charles himself omitted nothing that could be serviceable to these institutions, and is even said, personally, to have acquainted himself with their arrangement and management, and to have ascertained the progress of the pupils by actual visits, exciting them to diligence, and deterring them from idleness. An anecdote related by the monk of St. Gallen, is illustrative of this, and though it was, perhaps, invented at a subsequent period, it is nevertheless founded on the fact, that the king himself personally inspected the schools. According to the worthy monk’s account, Charles once visited the school erected in pursuance of his command by the Irishman, Clemens. On examining the pupils, he made the very natural discovery, that the sons of the nobility, confiding in their rank and riches, in no degree answered his expectations, whilst, on the other hand, the poor availed themselves of the opportunity afforded them of obtaining, by their own exertions, that which fortune had denied them. The king graciously commended the latter, and encouraged their zeal by promising to promote them to high offices, and honorable stations in the church and state. The idle scholars, on the contrary, he reproved sharply, assuring them, with an impressive oath, that their birth was of no value in his eyes, and that it was their talents only that would ever entitle them to receive any mark of favor from him. Sentiments like these were peculiar to Charlemagne and no doubt similar occasions occurred in which they could not fail to produce an effect.


Alcuin’s Return to England.


The relation in which Alcuin stood towards Charlemagne, during the time of his first residence with him, may be compared to that of Voltaire or other learned Frenchmen towards Frederick the Great. They lived at the court of the king of Prussia, without rendering themselves his subjects by accepting any appointment, and without entering into any closer connection than that of mutual good-will and reciprocal benefits. In the same way, Alcuin was simply the preceptor and counsellor of Charles; and the two monasteries assigned him, are to be considered less as an office under the government, than a provision for defraying his necessary expenses. He looked upon his residence and exertions among the French as temporary, and terminating when the king’s wishes were accomplished. He, therefore, avoided seeking any permanent appointment, and refused to accept any when offered. So little did he desire to break off his connection with the kingdom of Northumberland as a subject, and with the church at York as a deacon, that he longed for nothing more earnestly than to be liberated from the difficulties and literary privations consequent upon his residence at the court of Charlemagne, and to be able to return to his books and learned occupations at York. “I have never been unfaithful to the people of England”, he could conscientiously reply to the accusation, that he had become a Frank and had forgotten his native country. He proved his fidelity by the use which he made of his influence with the French king to procure several advantages for the English church, and to maintain a good understanding between Charlemagne and the princes of the Saxon heptarchy, among whom Offa, king of Mercia, held the first rank. He declined, it is true, the propositions made to him by the Anglo-Saxon princes, to take up his abode at their court; but he sent some of his own pupils to supply his place. But there were duties which he owed to the kingdom of Northumberland, and the church at York; and these he remembered so soon as he saw the literary institutions established by Charles in active operation, and the king surrounded by men capable of continuing and extending the work when begun. He then asked Charles’s permission to return to his own country. Charlemagne knew too well how to value a man like Alcuin, to be willing to lose him, and prized too dearly the rare happiness of possessing a true and sincere friend, not to desire his longer, and, if possible, permanent residence, and to offer everything that might induce him to remain. But as Alcuin’s conscience bore him testimony that he had not been allured to France by any prospect of worldly gain, but solely by the hope of being useful to the church and to science, the offer of high dignities and great riches made less impression upon him than the condescending request of a powerful prince. He therefore replied, “My lord king, I will not refuse thy wish if I can fulfil it without violating the commands of the church. Although I possess no small inheritance in my own country, I will willingly resign it, and in poverty serve thee, and remain with thee. Let it be thy care to obtain the permission of my king and my bishop”. This seemed reasonable to Charles, as well as Alcuin’s wish to revisit his native country after so long an absence. He therefore dismissed him, with letters to the king of Northumberland and the archbishop of York. In order to retain him in his service, during his journey, he invested him with the character of a public ambassador, and commissioned him to renew the good understanding between the French monarchy and Offa king of Mercia.

Offa, in consequence of the superiority of his talents, and the vigour of his operations, which were no restrained by any regard to right or wrong, had become the most powerful among the Anglo-Saxon kings; and Charles had entered into alliance with him soon after his first journey across the Alps. Since the year 788, however, this harmony had been interrupted by misunderstandings occasioned by the political affairs of Wessex, so that even the commercial intercourse between France and England had ceased. After the death of Cenulph, king of Wessex, in 786, Offa, by his interposition, had procured the throne for Britherich, in spite of the juster claims of Egbert. The deposed prince sought first in Mercia that safety which he could no longer hope to find in Wessex, until the marriage of Britherich with Offa’s daughter Cadburga, rendered this retreat also dangerous. He therefore quitted England in 788, and took refuge at the court of Charles the Great, where he experienced a friendly reception, and found an opportunity of cultivating his talents, and of forming himself upon the model of a great king. The friendly treatment of Egbert, and the protection which many of his adherents found at the French court, were regarded by Offa and Britherich as expressions of hostility against them, and occasioned the interruption of the harmony which had hitherto existed between the two nations. Alcuin acquitted himself of his commission so successfully, that peace was not only re-established with Offa, but was, a few years later, confirmed by a treaty, in which Charles engaged to secure to the Anglo-Saxon pilgrims, who were desirous of making a pilgrimage to Rome, a safe and free passage through his dominions, and also to take the merchants under his especial protection.